Issue 12.6: December 2009 / January 2010

Eleanor and the Explorer

story by Liza Simon

photo by Charles E. Freeman


It was the 1930s when Eleanor Nordyke, a little girl on a family excursion, boated across Kealakekua Bay to visit the monument erected in memory of Capt. James Cook. The explorer had been killed in the bay in 1778, Eleanor learned, but not before he had undertaken three epic voyages and circumnavigated the world. Back home in Honolulu, an intrigued Eleanor studied up on Cook’s legacy in her parents’ large library. Cook’s voyages had brought societies into contact with one another, the books taught the curious girl, but they’d also introduced deadly disease and—as Cook’s demise itself illustrated—colossal cultural misunderstandings.


Now 82, Eleanor sits in her Manoa house, just a few doors from her childhood home and still surrounded by books on Cook. More than seventy years on, she is now a bona fide expert on the explorer’s life, and she is full of intriguing facts about Cook and his times. For example, she utterly discounts the idea that Cook was the first non-Polynesian in Hawaii. She points to boxes of evidence stacked up in her living room, filled, she says, with clues about numerous other foreigners who arrived before Cook: perhaps from Belgium, Spain, Portugal or other European nations or from Japan or China.


If Eleanor believes Cook wasn’t the first, all the more reason for the question: Why her lifelong fascination with the explorer? She smiles and notes that, to begin, he was a remarkable scientist. He entered life with nothing, the son of a farm laborer, yet managed to rise through the ranks of the British Navy and become the most famous sea captain of his day—no easy feat in the England of King George III. His mastery of mathematics, geometry, astronomy and other fields of inquiry made him the finest navigator of eighteenth-century Europe.


“He was a meticulous cartographer. He could pinpoint the location of his ships,” says Eleanor. “Let me show you his map.” She pulls it out and I blink twice, because—to Cook’s credit—his picture of the globe is so very modern. Previous European navigators could plot latitude only, which led to a distortion of distances; great blank surfaces of the planet were filled in with products of the imagination, often of the here-be-dragons variety. Cook had lunar tables, a nautical almanac and, most important, an instrument known as Harrison’s chronometer, which enabled the reckoning of longitude and history’s first nearly accurate rendering of the globe.


Beyond the hard science was the social science—and for Eleanor, who is herself a social scientist, it was this that proved most compelling of all about Cook: that he so skillfully honed his powers of observation that he became a documentarian. “As the first of the really scientific investigator-explorers, Cook had a directive from the British Admiralty to secure portraits of the people and lands he visited,” says Eleanor. His voyages made, she emphasizes, a remarkable contribution to “visual education” in an age long before technology gave us a virtual twenty-four/seven window into one another’s lives. “Cook got to experience a vast array of Polynesian customs. He took note of many things, such as the love of children, the island festivals, the significance of foods.”




Eleanor has preserved Cook’s early lens on the world by crafting an elegant book titled Pacific Images: Views from Captain Cook’s Third Voyage. In her cluttered but comfy home are copies of the tome, which is just out in a second edition, published by the University of Hawaii Press. Other than penning a brief forward, Eleanor composed Pacific Images by matching text from Cook’s journals with reproductions of illustrations done by Cook’s on-board artist, John Webber. She takes readers along on Cook’s final voyage, an expedition in search of a northern passage between the Atlantic and the Pacific, made at the peak of the explorer’s fame. Glancing again at the map, Eleanor falls silent for a moment, allowing me to take in the traced route of Cook’s last journey, from the Arctic to Antarctica, from Tasmania to Tonga to Tahiti and to the fateful stop in Hawaii.


“All of Britain waited for this,” she says of the maps, words and pictures she has now reassembled in Pacific Images. “The British Admiralty seized the journals of other crewmen and prepared Cook’s as the only official account. By the time Cook had gotten to his third voyage, people were quite anxious to know what had gone on. Sometimes, word reached them overland from Russia, but usually they expected to wait several years after Cook’s return to get word of what happened.”


Eleanor pulls out the very document that was her primary source for Pacific Images: a worn leather-bound journal of Voyage to the Pacific Ocean, published in 1784, just five years after Cook’s demise. The book is extremely rare, one of just 2,000 originally published copies of Cook’s journal. The seal embossed on the cover of Eleanor’s copy indicates it was once the personal property of the Prince of Wales.


She happened upon the journal while browsing in a rare-book store in San Francisco. She bought it and brought it back to Hawaii, thrilled but not quite sure what to do with it until the same store called her back to say they had come into possession of three of Cook’s maps plus a collection of engravings done from drawings made by John Webber. Did Eleanor want to buy them? Absolutely. But then, she recalls, “I felt stressed that I should have these things and not others. How could I share them?”


Noting that the drawings had only scant notes to identify their subject matter, Eleanor came up with a plan: She would reproduce the images and match them with the appropriate passages from Cook’s journal. Serendipity presented Dr. James Mattison, a close friend of Nordyke’s late husband as well as a photographer and protege of the great Ansel Adams. Mattison visited the Nordyke home and agreed to take on the task of photographing the drawings. The project grew into an eighteen-year collaboration and eventually culminated in the original edition of Pacific Images. UH Press published just 2,000 copies in 1998.


The book often involved painstaking detective work. The engravers who were reproducing Webber’s images had never laid eyes on the people and places the artist rendered, and they took liberties that sometimes made it hard for Eleanor to match text to image: a gathering of night dancers in Tonga looks peculiarly Renaissance-like; the aquiline noses in a portrait of a mother and child in Tasmania don’t fit.


But Eleanor was up to the task. By day she worked at the East-West Center as a demographer; late at night she found solitary time when her four children—including a set of twins—were asleep. The errors of the eighteenth-century artists she faced by the midnight oil only served as reminders of the insulation and homogeneity that existed during Cook’s time.


As for Cook’s journal entries, Eleanor found little that wasn’t consistent with her view that Cook was a remarkable scientist. “He sought information wherever he could,” she says. “He took along some of the most knowledgeable men of Europe. It’s amazing to think of what they confronted with minimal instruments.” She counts it as a mark of Cook’s eminence that most of his fellow Europeans—many of whom were at war with each other during his time—went along with Ben Franklin’s brokering of a deal to forbid attacks on Cook’s ships. “Cook’s men also loved him, even if he had the power to discipline them,” she adds, explaining that the English sea captain made a name for himself early on by feeding his crew boiled cabbage to prevent the ravages of scurvy. 


Eleanor does not, though, consider Cook any sort of humanitarian. The British treated native peoples ruthlessly, she says, and this behavior was ingrained in Cook, too, even though he set sail for the sake of science, not conquest. She notes that on his third voyage he had been at sea for twelve years. “He was a tired man,” she says. “His judgment on that last day was poor. Some of his crew used firearms to kill the Hawaiian chief that Cook held in highest esteem. If there is negative feeling about Cook, it is justifiable.”


When Pacific Images was originally published in 1998, it sold out quickly. Then copies began resurfacing on-line at exorbitant prices. Eleanor displays a price list with incredulity. The whole point of the book, for her, was accessibility—and hence her decision to bring out the new edition. And there was one other development that played into her decision to republish: Two years ago, Eleanor was contacted by Ron Meade, the owner of an extensive collection of Capt. Cook stamps from eighty-eight countries. Meade granted her permission to print the collection in the book’s second edition.


The stamps depict people, tools and objects associated with Cook’s voyages, and Eleanor can’t resist pointing out a few of her favorites. One is of a Hawaiian warrior helmet from Cook’s time, a helmet she believes suggests that Spanish conquistadores might have put in at Hawaiian ports before Cook. “Every one of these stamps is worth a research dissertation in itself,” she sighs. “Give me another twenty years and I will write one more book on Cook.”


Eleanor looks out her living room window at the sunlight reflecting off the ocean. The silvery blue stretches into a blur beyond the skyline, and you can feel how much she wants us to savor, just for a moment, what it was like to look out on an infinite horizon and feel the mystery of the unknown. At a time when technology has shrunk distances and made isolation nearly impossible, she sees no reason to stop looking around for frontiers, though in the twenty-first-century context, she might tell you this act is as simple as looking into the eyes of a stranger and finding commonality.  

Her life’s work as a demographer, she says, has revealed that we are all basically made of the same stuff, a view Cook might disagree with from his eighteenth-century vantage point. But Cook gave us a tool to begin the journey of seeing one another in a new light—simply by seeing. “In a journal entry,” Eleanor says, “he wrote that an image can provide a record of a moment that words—no matter the quantity—could never reproduce.”